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China Looks South

from the January 14, 2014 eNews issue

While China has recently been making moves to the East towards confrontations with both Japan and South Korea, now they are moving towards the South and confronting the Philippines over territorial possessions.

The Philippines and China have been embroiled in increasingly antagonistic territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Last year, China seized a shoal near the northwestern coast of the Philippines, and this year it demanded that the Philippine Navy withdraw from Second Thomas Shoal farther south.

The Philippines has incensed China by seeking United Nations arbitration to solve the disputes.

Further aggravating the situation, the Philippines and the United States cooperated in joint war games last September at a naval base facing waters claimed by China, as the two counties put together a joint front solidifying their military alliance.

About 2,300 marines from both sides took part in the annual maneuvers which were being staged alongside the South China Sea and came ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s first visit to the Philippines.

The Philippines, which has been seeking U.S. military support to counter what it perceives as a growing Chinese threat to its South China Sea territory, welcomed the exercises as another important plank in building its defense capabilities.

“Multilateral exercises and agreements are essential in our cooperation and operational readiness as a multi-capable force, ready to defend our country’s sovereignty and integrity,” Philippine Navy vice-commander Rear Adm. Jaime Bernardino said in a speech at the opening of the exercises.

The Sine-Philippine dispute centers around Scarborough Shoal, a group of rocky outcrops that is one of the flashpoint areas in the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.

The Philippines insists it has sovereign rights to the shoal, which fishermen from coastal towns have sailed to for decades, because it is well within its internationally recognized Exclusive Economic Zone.

An Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is a seazone prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea over which a state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind. It stretches from the baseline out to 200 nautical miles from its coast. (Wikipedia, 2013)

The nearest major Chinese land mass to Scarborough Shoal is Hainan island, about 650 kilometers away.

But China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters and land formations close to the other countries. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, as well as the Philippines, have overlapping claims to parts of the sea.

The rivalries have for decades made the sea, home to vital global shipping lanes, a potential trigger for military conflict.

Tensions have risen sharply in recent years amid accusations by the Philippines and Vietnam of increasing Chinese aggressiveness.

The Philippines says Chinese vessels have occupied Scarborough Shoal since last year, preventing Filipino fishermen from going there. Last year, the Philippines accused China of erecting concrete structures there to begin a permanent presence in the area.

To counter the Chinese, the Philippines have proposed a deal that would expand the U.S. military presence in the Philippines.

The pact would allow the United States to bring military hardware onto local bases, and formalize more U.S. troop visits. The Philippines has said it wants the pact signed as soon as possible.

The United States had a permanent military presence at two bases in the Philippines until 1992, when they were closed amid nationalist opposition.

Now China seems poised to seize Zhongye (Pagasa) Island.

According to a report filed by the China Daily News:

Relying on U.S. support, the Philippines is so arrogant as to announce in the New Year that it will increase its navy and air force deployment at Zhongye Island, a Chinese island that it has illegally occupied for years.

It will be an intolerable insult to China.

According to experts, the Chinese navy has drawn a detailed combat plan to seize the island and the battle will be restricted within the South China Sea.

The battle is aimed at recovery of the island stolen by the Philippines from China.

There will be no invasion into Filipino territories.

A report in the Philippines Star confirmed the Philippines military buildup on the island.

Zhongye Island, the second largest in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands, has an area of 0.13 square miles (or 60 football fields), and is of great strategic significance for China if it wants to control the vast part of the South China Sea that it claims to be its territorial waters.

Since the Island is located roughly in the middle of the area, if China builds an air force and naval base there, it will more easily control the sky and sea in the claimed area.

Besides the vast sea and mineral resources found in the area, there is another reason the Chinese want to take control of the island. Taking the island from the Philippines would also mean that the US and even Japan may divert some of their aircraft and warships to the area, and thus enable China to deal with less Japanese and US aircraft and warships if there ever is an armed conflict between China and Japan and possibly the US in the East China Sea.

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